Wightchester was once ‘Whitchester’. ‘Whit’ meaning ‘white’ and ‘chester’ from the Roman ‘castrum’, meaning ‘fort’. The place was once known, then, as ‘white-fort’ or ‘white castle’, the ‘white’ of its name coming from the chalk downland upon which it was built.
The town grew up around the Roman fort, with its walls being reinforced, expanded and rebuilt in the years following the retreat of the Romans and the descent into the Dark Ages. The Romans were not the first to settle in the area, though their villas and evidence of their presence remain everywhere in the city and the surrounding area – for those who know how to see.
In prehistoric times the large number of flints and the proximity to water led to several ‘mines’ being dug to extract the flint, with these unnatural caverns being re-used as burial chambers, which are occasionally stumbled upon by farmers and amateur archeologists.
These early, neolithic, structures and tribal hunting grounds eventually developed into the fortified settlements, burial mounds and standing stones that can still be seen dotting the landscape, and on from that the development of hill forts during Britain’s iron age. The remnants of these bygone ages are still turned up from time to time, usually in the form of imperishable stone arrowheads.
When the Romans came, the site of Whitchester was the site of a moderately sized set of standing stones, subsidiary to the not-too-distant Stonehenge, and a sizeable hill fort that was part of a network of defences belonging to the Belgae tribe. The Romans invaded, destroyed the temples as a demonstration of their power – using fire and water – and built their own garrison atop the hill fort of ‘Gwynbryn’ (White Hill). By the third century this fortress gained a true, stone wall and sprawled over more than one-hundred acres of land.
In medieval times the city shrank, but remained something of an urban centre, despite the decline. In the ancient chronicles it was known as ‘Caergwyn’ or ‘Gwyncaestre’ the second of which would eventually be corrupted into the form ‘Whitchester’. It was during this time (beginning in 685) that the Cathedral began to be built, though this construction was disrupted by both the Norman invasion of 1066 and the great importance being given to other Cathedrals. As such, Whitchester Cathedral ended up being constructed piecemeal, giving it a schizophrenic appearance, and wasn’t finished until 1527…